The Burning of Portsmouth


Location: Portsmouth

In May 1779 the British detached a fleet of ships under Admiral Collier with a army detachment under General Matthew to make a putative raid into the Lower Chesapeake and destoy the tobacco warehouses in Portsmouth and Suffolk. This fleet was supported by a smaller fleet of privateers owned by John Goodridge. After destroying Portsmouth, the British took away a large contingent of runaways from the Portsmouth and Norfolk area  consisting of 256 men, 135 women and 127 children.

Virginian Patriot, Edmund Pendleton claimed that the British had taken away three times that many and that they had stolen these people in snatch and grab raids in order to sell them in the West Indies. To the contrary, the evidence suggests a series of premeditated and well-organized escapes by interconnected family groups. The majority would have been of little use to the British, being disabled men, elderly women, small children and adolescents. It was nonsensical for the British to have taken as plunder such a large number of elderly and disabled people, as well as small children and nursing mothers. Nor did it make sense for British sailors to have gone from plantation to plantation seeking out the kinfolk to ensure that those they took were members of large extended families.

 More than a hundred people ran off from plantations in Norfolk County, demonstrating a complex demographic profile with connections of kin and marriage across numerous plantations. On Crane Island, near Norfolk, more than sixty ran off together from four or five plantations, and several of them had ties of marriage or kinship with another large group that fled from the plantation of Willis Wilkinson in adjoining Nasemond County. One of the threads that appears to have bound people in this group was an attachment to the charismatic Methodist preacher Moses who had defected to Dunmore three years before, as many of them were later listed among his congregation in New York. Luke and Mingo Jordan, who ran from different plantations in Isle of Wight and Nansemond counties, were his assistant exhorters, who later became preachers themselves.


For an account of the destructive raids into Portsmouth and Norfolk see George Collier, A Detail of Some Particular Services Performed in America During the Years 1776-1779 (New York, 1835). The fleet returned immediately to New York with all its refugees, “Return of Persons that came off from Virginia with General Mathew in the Fleet August 24, 1779”, CO 5/52/63, NA. Pendleton to Woodford, June 21, 1779, The Letters and Papers of Edmund Pendleton, vol. 1, 290-1.